Some tweens will come to your library media center or classroom with an appetite for reading and a love of books. For other students, you need a hook. Television and movie tie-ins are popular with reluctant readers, although sometimes the quality of those offerings is lacking. Fortunately, the Club CSI: series is a well-written, intelligently plotted entry into this arena. The Case of the Mystery Meat Loaf is the first of six books published earlier this decade.
The characters and situations in the CSI: television shows probably wouldn’t be appropriate for our tween audience, so we switch the setting to Woodlands Junior High, where new science teacher Miss Hodges introduces forensic science into the curriculum. (Miss Hodges mentions a cousin who works in a crime lab in Las Vegas – probably a nod to lab tech David Hodges from the TV show.) Three students are inspired to form an after-school club - Club CSI: - using their newly-obtained knowledge to solve mysteries around school. The first mystery: a case of food poisoning linked to a meatless meat loaf served in the school cafeteria – based on a recipe provided by Miss Hodges!
The first book in any series must introduce the main characters, and the three Club CSI: members are straight out of central casting. There’s Hannah – the detail-oriented natural leader, Ben – the brainy science kid who’s a bit lacking in social skills, and Cody – the affable, insightful jock who never backs away from a challenge – or a snack. The reader doesn’t have to spend too much time learning about these characters because they’ve seen the "type" in countless shows, movies, and cartoons. Add the buffoonish, loud-mouth bully, the cool new teacher with cowboy boots and a denim jacket, and the principal who always seems to be one step behind, and the dramatis personae is complete. The kids are just a little too focused and little too smart for reality, but once again that’s typical for a TV tie-in. The use of such stock characters is disappointing, but they certainly increase the accessibility for reluctant readers.
The beauty of The Case of the Mystery Meat Loaf lies in the plot. The club uses the information they’ve learned in class to follow the clues to a logical conclusion. This isn’t the Scooby-Doo team tripping over clues. These students interview witnesses and victims, collect evidence, and question basic assumptions. All of this is done without help from Miss Hodges, because she’s a prime suspect. Careful readers can solve the mystery, but it’s not obvious.
Although the mysterious predicament is quite serious, the tone is light as a feather. It’s easy to imagine yourself watching a television show while reading this book. Jokes and reactions are telegraphed, and I found myself listening for laugh-tracks and segue music as a new chapter began. But, familiar turf is the best place to meet a reluctant reader. No complaints here.
Books from the Club CSI: series probably won’t show up on any state-award lists. Don’t look for an award sticker on the cover. The literary book club will take a pass. But if you’re a classroom teacher, a school library media specialist, or a parent looking for that hook that starts a lifelong reading habit, Club CSI: may just solve your mystery. Consider adding the series to your classroom library and school library media center collection.
Purchasing note: Book Outlet (www.bookoutlet.com) currently has all six paperback books in the Club CSI: series for $2.99 each. Of course, with Book Outlet, when they’re gone, they’re gone!